The Outsider

outsiderDoes anyone remember that in 2002, Stephen King announced his retirement? Let’s just pause to think about that for a second. Even if you assume that From a Buick 8 and the Dark Tower books were already in the pipeline at that point and don’t count them, he’s written 17 books since that time. Seventeen! I mean, dude barely even slowed his roll. And several of those books are as good as anything he’s done. Glad he didn’t take retirement seriously, is I guess what I’m saying.

The Outsider starts with the fuel of nightmares — and I mean non-supernatural nightmares, the kind of thing you could feel nervous about even if the worst thing you watch is CSI or Law and Order. A child has been murdered in Flint City, in the worst, most horrible, most brutal possible way, and the police know who did it: Terry Maitland, a well-known and beloved Little League coach. And when I say they know, they know: they have fingerprints everywhere, DNA, semen samples, footprints, tire prints, eyewitnesses who saw him put the kid in the Econoline van, the works. It is an absolutely slam-dunk case. So they make a huge public arrest at the ball park, in front of all Terry’s family, friends, and the kids he coaches. But then… it turns out that Terry has a totally iron-clad alibi. Not only was he out of town at the time of the murder, he was with colleagues the entire time, and he was even captured on video. He had to have done it. But he could not have done it.

Ralph Anderson, the detective on the case, is that satisfying thing, a good cop. He regrets the mistake of arresting Terry so publicly, and he understands that there’s something weird going on. When Terry’s lawyer wants to bring in outside help in the form of Holly Gibney (an excellent character from King’s earlier Mr. Mercedes series), he agrees. But when she suggests that the something weird is actually what she calls an “outsider,” someone who can take on the likeness, DNA, and even memories of another person in order to kill children, he comes to a screeching halt. “That’s like believing in Santa Claus,” he says. (Funny kind of Santa Claus your parents told you about, my dude.)

This is one of Stephen King’s scariest books he’s recently written. It’s scary on both the non-supernatural level (what if you were accused of a slam-dunk crime you didn’t commit? How quickly would your town turn into a mob?) and the supernatural level (shape-shifting child-killing boogeyman, uuuuggggh.) The action is nonstop. There are several unexpected twists. The characters are terrific and engaging.

One thing I appreciated about this novel is that it plays with the Portuguese/ Latin American legend of El Cuco, which is essentially a boogeyman who eats children, and with las luchadoras, heroines who hunt him down. King doesn’t try to appropriate these myths. He knows he’s an outsider to them, and he signposts that in the book. But his deep interest and appreciation (and fear!) make this a really interesting novel. I liked having some culture in there that was small-town, which King does well, but not Maine.

A big theme of the novel is skepticism. As I said, Ralph Anderson simply isn’t willing to believe that there’s a supernatural explanation for what’s been going on in Flint City. He thinks there simply has to be a rational explanation for it, because the rational is all there is. Holly Gibney has had certain experiences that incline her to be a little more open, and she knows that beings like the Outsider get away with literal murder because people won’t believe what’s going on in front of their eyes. (It’s all a little bit X-Files, but since I love the X-Files, that’s not a bad thing.) Holly asks Ralph — and by extension asks us — if it were a question of life and death, would you believe something like this?

In any case, I definitely recommend this book if this is the sort of thing you enjoy. It was fast-paced, exciting, fun to read, and satisfying. Hail to the non-retired retiree.

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Daughters of the North/The Carhullan Army

A woman, who now goes by the name Sister, once lived in the town of Rith in northern England, but she escaped with a rucksack full of supplies and a working gun. Her goal was to find the Carhullan, a community of women who lived outside the government’s purview. Environmental catastrophe had led the government to impose strict regulations on everyone, especially women. People were moved into cities, where they were assigned often-pointless jobs, and women were forced to get IUDs so they won’t get pregnant. Sister’s husband doesn’t seem to mind so much, but Sister has had enough. And so she leaves.

At Carhullan, Sister finds a different kind of life, although it is no less regimented than that in Risk. In some respects, it is more regimented. Still, it is a chosen life, and that makes a lot of difference. As time passes, however the community comes to reconsider its relationship with the outside world and the Authority that governs it. How long will they be left to themselves? How can they defend their world? When is the right time to act? And how?

In this 2007 novel, Sarah Hall explores questions that I imagine are on a lot of people’s minds today. At what point are the most radical options—the ones totally outside our comfort zones—the best choice, the most moral choice? And how can a community make those choices together? What if those choices affect others outside the community? And how do we balance our own freedom with the needs of the wider world?

These questions aren’t considered in long, philosophical discussions, although the women of Carhullan discuss and debate every action. The fact that this is a community of women changes some of the power dynamics, but it doesn’t remove them. It’s more that, without men, all of these women are able to exercise their full power, for good or for ill. The group’s leader, Jackie, is as unsettlingly inspiring as any male leader I’ve encountered in a story of this type. I admired her and was repelled by her all at once.

And what these women go through in the name of resistance is unsettling. They live a harsh life, in almost every respect. Yes, they have camaraderie, and they have choice (up to a point), but nothing is easy. And when they begin planning for their next steps, life gets even harder. Freedom comes with a cost, and not just a physical one, but perhaps also a moral one.

I found this book extremely disturbing, but in a good way. I liked that it doesn’t flinch at the difficulties, and I appreciated that there is nuance in the presentation. At the end of the book, we’re left to wonder whether Jackie’s plan was the right one. I don’t know what I think, and I’m sure to be pondering the question for some time.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 3 Comments

Thus Bad Begins

thus bad beginsI was at the library a couple of weeks ago and ran across this book — and a few others — by Javier Marías. “Spain’s premier novelist,” it said, and I discovered that he’s written about seventeen novels, only one of which (Your Face Tomorrow) I’d ever heard of. So I picked this one off the shelf, described on the book jacket as a literary thriller, and dove in — after all, if it was wonderful, I’d have sixteen more!

The book portrays what I’d kind of like to describe as the opposite of a love triangle. A hate triangle? A contempt triangle? The narrator is a young man, Juan de Vere, working as an assistant for Eduardo Muriel, a Spanish film director. His work often brings him into Muriel’s home, and he discovers that Muriel treats his wife, Beatriz Noguera, with contempt and cruelty, verbally abusing her and rejecting her timid offers of reconciliation. Juan doesn’t have any idea why the couple has split with so much vitriol on Muriel’s part, and finds himself sympathizing with Beatriz — and attracted to her, despite the shocking twenty-year age difference. (Eyeroll.)

Then, Muriel asks Juan to investigate something for him. He’s heard that one of his closest friends, a doctor Van Vechten, might have done something really awful, and he wants Juan to find out if it’s true. But he won’t tell Juan any details. Was it something horrible under the Franco regime (whose shadow is over the entire novel)? Was it something personal against Muriel? Was it something about Beatriz? What? All Muriel will say is that it was something vile, something very low, and that he wants to know the truth of the matter. So Juan, his curiosity sparked, begins to poke around, and long-buried history and relationships begin to rise out of the ashes.

I really, really did not like this book at all. For one thing, it was far too long — over 500 pages — and so much of it was just bloviating on about nothing. There were long, long paragraphs full of platitudes and supposedly-deep thoughts that I found almost insanely irritating. The title comes from Shakespeare, and it was readily apparent that the author thought he was incredibly clever for quoting Shakespeare; that reference must have come up about twenty times. Hello, we get it, it’s Hamlet, ghosts arising from the past, thank you, please move on. And the repetition didn’t stop there! There were many, many other phrases and pieces of the book that circled around and around and really could have been cut. The parts about the Franco regime could have been interesting — how does a country deal with a dictatorship after the dictatorship is gone? — but they honestly just drowned in all the terrible bits.

For another thing, Beatriz is only an object in this book. I kept waiting and waiting for her to become an actual character, and she never does. This was simply infuriating. Muriel makes a big deal about how fat she has become, and the narrator earnestly assures us that no! She’s not fat at all! She’s actually very firm and ripe and attractive! Oh my GOD shut up — and that’s not even the worst of it, which I won’t get into so you don’t have to share my pain. She never has her own voice or point of view, unlike all the millions of men in the novel, and then of course the only recourse for her is to kill herself because how else can she express herself? There is so much male gaze in this book that it was like those sheets of googly eye stickers. Ugh.

You’re probably wondering why I finished the book. So am I! I suppose I was wondering what Van Vechten did that was so terrible (by the end, it was an anticlimax, or at least not really a surprise.) I guess I can cross the other sixteen books off my list, huh?

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Version Control

version controlThis is a book of science fiction unlike pretty much any other I’ve read. The science fiction piece revolves around a causality violation device (it’s not a time machine!) and about the consequences of using it or not using it, but the book isn’t really about that. Like all the best science fiction, this book is about people: it’s about what makes us human instead of collections of data points, it’s about loss and grief, about friendship and love, about tragedy and addiction, about race and gender, about ideas and machines and science and what it means to go through the long and sometimes very tedious work of combining them. It’s a long book, and I loved the entire thing, in this best of all possible worlds.

The novel begins by tracing the relationship of Philip Steiner, a physicist working on the causality violation device, and his wife, Rebecca Wright, who has a part-time job working for Lovability, an online matchmaking service. The couple is recovering from a terrible tragedy, and Rebecca (who has recently stopped drinking) has an uneasy feeling that the world is wrong, somehow; that nothing is quite what it should be.

The whole first part of the book could feel like set-up if you were waiting for a big science-action-thriller-y plot. I didn’t find it slow or frustrating, however, since I was completely caught up in reading about these people. They live in a world that’s just slightly in our future: self-driving cars are the norm; the President can appear on our screens any time he likes, thanks to advanced AI; department stores can take your metrics and send you home with a custom-fitted garment (supposedly, anyway.) But the conveniences and fads haven’t taken away any of the insecurity, the sorrow, the need to connect, or the need to make sense of a world that often seems upside-down. We still have to do that ourselves.

The people in this book talk a lot. They have conversations about big ideas: science, God, time travel, what it means to be a human being, ambition, grief, love, race. I’ve read a couple of reviews that seem to think this isn’t realistic. I guess it depends on your friends, because I do this all the time? I mean, I also have conversations about TV and what I’m going to have for dinner and what my kids are up to lately and how I don’t understand jazz, but big-idea conversations don’t seem unrealistic to me at all. I usually have three or four a day. I loved this about this book; it gave meat to the bones and let me understand the characters. I didn’t think it was ever heavy-handed or a way to let the author monologue — it just felt like part of the weave of the novel. It made me purely happy to read it.

When big events finally happen in the novel, part of the pleasure is seeing what changes and what doesn’t change. Is it a second chance? Is it really? Are we actually living in the best of all possible worlds? If we weren’t, would we know? The science — the long process of trial and failure and trial again — is a way of being in the world that can eventually lead us to acts we never thought possible.

I thought this was an absolutely wonderful novel: engaging, fascinating, full of new, bright ideas as a riverbed is of stones. I wanted even more of it when I was finished. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing more from this author.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 6 Comments


When Norma’s mother, Anita, dies by falling in front of a Metro train, Norma is left with a mystery. Did she slip? Did she jump? Was she pushed? And why? And who is the mysterious man who turned up at the funeral?

Meanwhile, Marion and Alvar, owners of the hair salon where she worked are in a panic. Anita had connections that allowed her to provide the salon with a constant supply of high-quality “Ukranian” hair to use for extensions, and the customers loved it. How will they get by without it?

Marion and Alvar, by the way, are the children of Helena, Anita’s closest friend. Helena has been hospitalized for mental illness for many years, and Anita was a frequent visitor.

Also, Norma has magic hair.

So there’s a lot going on in this novel by Sofi Oksansen, translated from the Finnish by Owen F. Witesman. And all of these threads hold some interest. But the book as a whole didn’t come together for me.

As for what I liked, I really loved Norma’s hair. It grows rapidly, reacts to others’ moods, and enables Norma to sense whether others are telling the truth. It’s described well and creates a near-constant source of tension in the book, as Norma tries to hide what her hair can do, a fact that needs to be secret not just because it makes her odd, but also because it could make her a commodity.

And the idea of women as commodities turns out to be a important piece of the story, as Norma digs into her mother’s last days and uncovers an underground surrogacy network. The hair market, it turns out, is an avenue into places where there are vulnerable women whose bodies can be used for others, whether they’re willing or not. It’s a dark piece of the story, and all of that ties in thematically. And I enjoyed when Norma is reading her mother’s journals and piecing it all together.

The problem is that it never does quite come together. The connections between the hair salon and the surrogates becomes pretty muddy, and the whole storyline involving Marion and Alvar, each with their own motives, trying to navigate that network is never as interesting as that of Norma trying to uncover her mother’s secrets. (It probably didn’t help that there’s a Marion and a Margit, and a Lambert and a a Lassi, and an Alvar and an Alla and an Elli and an Eva. It’s a petty complaint, but all these similar names added to my confusion and frustration.)

I was interested enough to read the book through to the end, partially in hopes that it would come together more fully in the end. It does come together, but I didn’t find it especially satisfying, especially in that Norma makes a choice that seems to come our of nowhere and sends her story in a whole new direction that never gets a chance to play itself out.

I’ve heard good things about Okansen’s earlier novel, Purge, so I may give it a try someday. Anyone read it?

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The Cooking Gene

Subtitled “A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South,” this book by Michael Twitty is part memoir and part history in which Twitty traces his own genetic heritage through food. Born in Washington, DC, Twitty shunned the greens and cornbread of his childhood home in favor of fast food, but as he got older, he became interested in his culinary heritage and learned to cook not just the food of his childhood but the food of his ancestors, using their methods.

I wanted to read this because I grew up in the rural South, and so my own food heritage owes a debt to the ingenuity of the cooks brought in chains from Africa. I wanted to learn more about them so that I could give credit where credit is due. These cooks brought their skills to America, adapted them to the ingredients found here as well as those imported from Africa, and created their own cuisine, sometimes drawing on techniques used by the Native people who cooked here for centuries before them. Besides greens and cornbread, there was rice, barbecue, sweet potatoes, peanuts, persimmons, and bream. As they were brought further inland and further south, they continued adapting their skills to new environments, creating cuisine to serve inside the plantation home (sometimes, like James Hemings of Monticello, drawing on European training) and to their own families as they were able. There’s no single story of Southern cuisine, as the enslaved cooks used what they had, and what they had varied by place and time. But Twitty is able to trace some of the common threads and see how certain foods made their way through the South. He doesn’t dig very deeply into techniques and flavors; this is more of a chronicle of influences, as cooks and their cuisines move through the continent.

Twitty also explores his own genetic history, getting tested by multiple companies to see whether and how well his genes match up with family lore. In doing so, he learns more about where in Africa his family came from and confirms that he has white ancestors as well as black. He visits grave sites and plantation homes and grapples with what his particular story means and how it fits with the larger story of history. I was interested to see that he claims not just his Asante and Igbo roots, but also his Irish ones, although his perspective on each differs, of course. He’s clear-eyed about where he comes from and approaches his story with curiosity but not without judgment where it is warranted. See, for example, his recent blog post about his white confederate ancestor, whose home he visits in this book.

The book is packed with information, and at times I found it rather too dense and not always easy to follow. The links between sections and the book’s internal logic weren’t always clear, especially early on when it seems to meander from subject to subject. The mix of memoir and informational text didn’t always work for me, although I could appreciate why Twitty wanted to take this approach. Food is a highly personal thing, and Twitty uses food to understand his history, so it’s natural that his history will become part of the book. However, I felt like there were a lot of gaps in Twitty’s story that make the memoir portions feel incomplete. For example, I never really got a handle on when and how he started studying culinary history. I would have liked more on that and less on the genetic testing—the genetic piece of his story is important, but there was more detail than I wanted.

Still, I was glad to have read this book, and I’m very glad that it exists and is getting so much attention. It’s essential that we learn more about the people who built our country and whose histories have been too easily erased.

Posted in Food, History, Nonfiction | 3 Comments

The Man in the Wooden Hat

The second book in Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy focuses on Betty, the wife of Edward Feathers—or at least it focuses on their marriage. There are still huge gaps in Betty’s story that I was hoping The Man in the Wooden Hat would fill. The fact that it didn’t made this book a bit of a disappointment, but it’s still a pretty good book overall.

The book begins with Edward’s proposal to Betty via letter to her in Hong Kong. They don’t know each other well, but they like each other, and the marriage seems like a good choice for them both. Before the marriage, however, Edward makes it clear that he’s been abandoned too often by too many people and that Betty must commit absolutely and solemnly to never leaving him. She takes this seriously, although even before the marriage, almost immediately after the engagement, her heart is with someone else.

In Old Filth, it was revealed that Betty had an affair with Terry Veneering, Eddie’s legal rival. Here, we learn the story of that affair. It was both fleeting and constant, consisting of only one night together but revisited in memory and through letters and calls. In fact, the connection is as much about Terry’s son, Harry, as it is about anything else. Betty and Harry form an easy and sweet bond at a party, and that bond persists through their lives.

The story presents a complex picture of love and loyalty. I think that Betty loves all three men—the husband, the lover, and the child—in different ways. There’s loyalty in her relationship with Eddie, passion with Terry, and warmth with Harry. All three are important, and to rank one as greater than the others in Betty’s life seems false. However, this division makes all three relationships feel incomplete, and that is part of the great sadness of Betty’s life. She’s divided, unable to live out the love she feels openly and completely.

Still, I wished there had been more about Betty herself, and not just about her affections for these men. In Old Filth, we got the full man, from childhood to death. In this book, we learn little about Betty’s past. We know that she was born in China, survived an internment camp, and worked at Bletchley Park. Every now and then, there are glimpses of how these experiences might have affected her, but they’re of the “blink and you miss them” variety. I would have liked something more substantive, giving her the complete treatment that her husband got in the previous book.

The final book in the trilogy is about Veneering. He’s not as interesting a character to me, but I may still read it. I certainly enjoyed reading these two books enough to want to read more Gardam. I’d never read her before, so if anyone has recommendations of other books by her to check out, please share!

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Death in Ecstasy

death in ecstasyThis is the fourth of Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels starring DI Roderick Alleyn, the smooth, nobly-born, well-educated man who actually works for the police force rather than being a private detective who generously contributes his services. I have to say that I like this arrangement: it is, in a way, the best of both the police-procedural and the amateur-aristocratic-sleuth world.

Death in Ecstasy is a shocking case that takes place in the Temple of the Sacred Flame, a nasty little London back-street cult. It’s run by Father Jasper Garnette, who has smooth oratory and drugs on his side, and who likes to tell the shapely ladies in his congregation that they are Sacred Vessels, and that Blessed Union will Elevate them to a Higher Spiritual Plane. When one of these Sacred Vessels, Miss Cara Quayne, dies at the moment of highest elevation, however, it turns out that it’s not ecstasy but cyanide that killed her, and that everyone at the ceremony must be investigated.

This is a nice, neat little mystery, and it’s a setup I haven’t often seen. I’ve seen a couple of mysteries within religious communities (convents or monasteries) but not much in the way of non-mainstream groups like this, where loyalty to a head figure creates a hothouse atmosphere that can be quite unhealthy. Marsh takes potshots in this mystery not only at religion, but at Americans (her American is a ludicrous caricature), at other mystery authors, at the French, and at journalists. The dialogue is enjoyable, especially with the loyal Sergeant Fox. (The best part was when Sergeant Fox was trying to follow the conversation with the Frenchman because he’d been listening to lessons on the radio.) The mystery is tidy and the conclusion is satisfying.

Unfortunately, I almost abandoned it a chapter in because of the vicious homophobia. There are two gay characters who are so thoroughly and nastily slurred and defamed that it makes the book almost totally unreadable. It’s one thing to notice a slightly-off comment in a novel from the 1930s and say that we wouldn’t say it the same way now; this is something completely… else, and ugly. Silver lining: at least the gay characters are summarily dismissed from the list of suspects because they “wouldn’t have the guts” to kill someone? Okay, that’s not a silver lining. If you don’t want to read this, I wouldn’t blame you, and I’m wondering if I want to read any more of these either — when I’m looking for a good detective novel, I don’t want a slap in the face. Plenty more detective fish in the mysterious sea.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 1 Comment

Signs of Life

signs of life1Ten years ago, in her twenties, Rachel was in a long-term relationship: “no ruptures, no wrinkles, we were happy.” Then she had an affair with a man at work, someone rougher and more dangerous than her boyfriend Johnny, and it ended badly, with violence and a breakdown. Now, all these years later, in Anna Raverat’s Signs of Life, she is trying to work through it, to understand it, so she can find the limits of her own responsibility and finally stop swimming upstream against it. This book is a careful unraveling of all the twists and threads of that sort of affair — the lies, the deceptions, the self-deceptions, the forgetting, especially after time and trauma and alcohol and drugs — with an attempt at perfect honesty.  It’s also an examination of the process of writing: going back and forth over something, trying to get it right, trying to drag the right words into the light so that the feelings lie sheer and clear. It makes for a fragmentary narrative in some ways, skipping backwards and forwards in time, and gradually building up to a horrifying climax.

Rachel thought she was happy in her relationship with Johnny, which was full of what was becoming a rather tiresome goodness. But when she meets Carl at work she knows he is trouble, a damaged, intense man, and despite this – or maybe because of it – she becomes involved with him. From the start it is a bad relationship, on again, off again, fraught with conflict, but she is painfully aware that there is something dark, possibly uncomfortably wrong and narcissistic at its center which she is partly responsible for creating. I was surprised at myself: I have a heightened awareness of the red flags of relationship abuse, but I was so caught up in the narrative that I didn’t become uncomfortable with it until Rachel did. This has to do with the seeking, questing nature of the narrative, the way she moves backward and forward, looking for what really happened, with no window-dressing. Rachel wants the truth; the question is whether the truth is something she can ever find, or even begin to articulate.

This is a beautifully written book. The prose is very simple, not in the least flowery or descriptive, as if Rachel is setting things on paper in as raw and plain a way as she can manage, as if she knows that any frippery at all will obscure the truth. I kept pausing over her observations, to let them strike home. Here’s one:

It doesn’t happen from the head down. That’s not how it is. You don’t always decide to do something and then do it, or decide not to do something and then not do it. And this doesn’t mean you are not responsible, it means responsibility is wider than you thought, and includes all the choices you made even if they were made by your hands or your feet or your lips before they registered in your head.

As this quotation suggests, one big thing this book thinks about is the way that big events — and sexuality in particular — can turn us into people we don’t recognize. Rachel does things she doesn’t like or respect, she treats Johnny horribly even though she loves him, but she mostly doesn’t remember choosing this. She experiences it as a kind of sleepwalking, stumbling along much farther and faster than she thought she was going. Her narrative also shows the way the biggest and most intense events of our lives can also be the hardest to explain. Did we make a choice? If so, when? What did we even want?

I was riveted by this book — by its psychological perspective, by the inherent unreliability of memory, by the slow, relentless approach of the consequences of bad behavior. I believe people are often their own worst enemies, and as I read about this woman wrestling with her own example of that, I barely wanted to put it down.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 4 Comments

Poor Miss Finch

poor miss finchAs you all may be aware, I am a big Wilkie Collins fan. In my view, there’s nothing more fun, or more satisfying for summer reading, than a big old sensationalist Victorian novel — and the more sensationalist the better. Poor Miss Finch was, therefore, a fantastic choice: it has twins (!) and mistaken identity, multiple betrayals, ESP (!!), epilepsy, elopement, a man with a shocking blue face (!!!), and a blind heroine (!!!!). It was also, as many of Collins’s novels are, completely hilarious.

The book is narrated by the outspoken and indefatigable Madame Pratalungo, a Frenchwoman who has come to be a companion to Lucilla Finch, who has been blind since she was a year old. Madame is happy to find that Lucilla is delightful in every way — capable, intelligent, sensitive. She has only one peculiarity: a nervous antipathy for dark colors. If she even imagines that something is dark — a dress, a piece of furniture — she can’t bear it to be near her.

Near Lucilla’s home where she lives with her absurd parents (more on whom later), they meet Oscar Dubourg, who has recently been acquitted of murder in a very public trial and is shrinking from the public eye. Lucilla falls for him instantly; Madame not so much, because Oscar is kind of a delicate flower, rather than the dashing sort of young man she prefers. But Lucilla will have her way in everything, and soon a marriage day is set. But! Oscar, partly through his own carelessness, is attacked by thugs, and the result of his injuries is severe epileptic seizures. The only cure? Silver nitrate, taken internally, which turns Oscar a shocking dark blue all over. Madame entreats Oscar to tell Lucilla — she will get used to it — but Oscar keeps the truth from her, and eventually outright lies to her, afraid to lose her love because of her nervous loathing of dark colors.

It turns out that Oscar has a twin brother, Nugent, whom he adores and who was responsible for his acquittal. Nugent has a very different temperament from the weak and shrinking Oscar: he is “the most opinionated man in the world,” full of energy and good humor (and, may I say, conceit.) Nugent insists that he knows a German oculist who can help Lucilla regain her sight, something everyone else had long ago given up. Of course everyone is delighted — except for Oscar. What will he do when she actually sees him?

I have to say that amid the twists and turns of the convoluted plot, I was absolutely delighted by the representation of blindness in this novel. Lucilla is entirely capable of caring for herself. She knows not only her home but her neighborhood, and she can and does go for walks by herself whenever she likes. She insists on caring for Oscar herself when he is ill, and boasts that only she can do it around the clock without disturbing him with a light. When she’s presented with the idea of regaining her sight, she says that in many ways she’s never wanted to see: her hands tell her everything she needs to know, and solve her problems, whereas eyes can play tricks. She suggests that if she could have extremely long arms instead, it would do her more good: she could touch things at a distance and “see” for herself what we can only see with telescopes. Madame Pratalungo also points out that Lucilla is less modest than other girls her age, in terms of saying what she thinks, because modesty is a function of being aware of others’ eyes judging you, and she is never aware of such a thing. Apparently, Collins got bad reviews because Lucilla Finch wasn’t saintly enough: people said that she should have been more patient and kind, given her lifelong trial, and so forth. I’m so glad that instead she is headstrong, lively, endearing, angry, suspicious, and anxious, among other things.

It’s not a perfect book, by any stretch of the imagination. I think Collins means us to have one opinion of the twins at the beginning and then flip our opinion halfway through, but Oscar is too weak and tells too many lies at the beginning to really be able to reestablish a different opinion of him afterward. The structure isn’t strong enough to withstand a real reversal like that. The strength of it is in the humor — Madame Pratalungo, with her fierce Republican tendencies, is a marvelous narrator. The different ways of looking at domesticity are also very clever, and Lucilla’s parents are completely hilarious. Another strength is in the exploration of the idea of regaining sight in a person blind from infancy. Collins suggests outright that it’s not going from disability to ability, but the reverse, at least at first. It’s fascinating. I absolutely enjoyed this book. I’m not sure which of Collins’s novels I’ll read next! Any suggestions?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments